Are you really ready for the future of work?

With so much focus on technology in tomorrow’s workplace, it’s vital to ensure employees remain front of mind

Is employee engagement in crisis? Well… yes. And it’s hardly surprising considering how quickly society and technology is changing.

How we view jobs, attitudes and skills is vastly different from a decade ago – and with so much emphasis on what the future workplace will be, it’s no wonder employees are feeling varying degrees of uncertainty.

What we do know for certain is that the pace of change is speeding up. Within this change, employees must be able to make informed decisions about their work and their future, and employers need to build an inclusive work environment alongside technological innovation. But how can we further promote autonomy and agile working when employee engagement is at an all-time low?

Employee engagement in 2018

An engaged employee cares about their work and understands the role they play in the success of the business. There is a well-known story about President John F. Kennedy meeting a janitor while touring the NASA headquarters in 1961. After shaking hands, the President said: “I’m Jack Kennedy, what do you do?” The response: “Well Mr President, I am helping put a man on the moon.”

While we know that millennials are more purpose-driven than other generations, it is rare to hear an employee make such a powerful connection to their work these days. According to the newest Gallup report, only 15 per cent of employees are engaged at work.

The implications of disengaged employees go beyond reduced productivity – it affects retention and your bottom line. Companies with engaged employees outperform those without by 202 per cent.

"Only 15 per cent of employees are engaged at work."

 A significant reason for this lack of engagement is that just as technology is changing, so are employees. Today’s workforce is diverse and for the first time we have five generations working alongside each other. Our needs and experiences are different, we are doing jobs that did not exist 10 years ago (engagement practitioners included), and technology has dramatically shaped our behaviours.

We live a connected life where you can share everything and can engage with anyone at any time. But the behaviours we have in our personal life aren’t reflected in our work environment. Systems are difficult to use and there are often too many communication platforms, which makes collaboration a challenge.

Harnessing the combined power of people and technology

“In the next 10 years, the workplace will change more than it has done in the last 300 years thanks to the rate at which technology is developing,” says Harry Gaskell, the chief innovation officer at EY, UK and Ireland. “We are already using artificial intelligence for routine tasks within data analysis, risk management and how we audit, and we’ve seen an increase in productivity of up to 1,800 times.”

However, he is quick to point out the limitations of artificial intelligence: it cannot think creatively or emotionally.

Empathy is a deeply human, emotional skill that is so complex and profoundly wired into our nervous systems that it is almost impossible to replicate in tech.

Empathy is also one of the strongest predictors of how well teams will work together and innovate. Technology will enable change and innovation in critical ways but it is the power of people and organisational culture that will bring it to life. Any large-scale human cooperation harnesses the power of influence and communication, so the rise of automation makes human capabilities more important than ever.

How do we prepare our employees for the future workplace?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to engaging employees – and there shouldn’t be.

Engagement is complex and shaped by different experiences. However, what we can do is move towards shaping an employee experience that is more in line with how we design our customer journeys. By understanding what employees are thinking, feeling and doing, we are better able to ensure they have the support they need.

Key to this is managing the digitisation of work processes and making communication a priority. Today, the most important conversations happen face to face, but we are already seeing how people use digital platforms to communicate and collaborate from different locations. This will accelerate, so one of the main challenges as we innovate further is how can we preserve our organisational culture?

 Simplify the digital experience

Digital platforms will continue to help bridge gaps between the disparate and flexible workforce. However, the number of platforms for different solutions is already rising, with employers finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the digital landscape. At each stage of the employee journey, from attraction through to exit, there are digital touchpoints that are often disjointed and fragmented.

How many different platforms do you use in your job? On average, organisations use 16 SaaS (software-as-a-service) applications every day. This means the employee experience from a digital standpoint is far from seamless, and you add an extra layer of complexity when you factor in wearable tech such as sociometric badges that measure levels of activity and human interaction.

How to make this more manageable? Let your digital solution choices be driven by a frictionless experience and employee needs. Before investing in a very expensive technology platform, ensure you’ve asked your employees what tools they need, what devices they use and where they encounter pain points. In this way, you’ll be able to create a digital workplace that will be adopted by employees.

Top Skills in 2020

In 2020 In 2015

1. Complex Problem Solving

2. Critical Thinking

3. Creativity

4. People Management

5. Coordinating with others

6. Emotional Intelligence

7. Judgement and Decision


8. Service Orientation

9. Negotiation

10. Cognitive Flexibility

1. Complex Problem Solving

2. Coordinating with others

3. People Management

4. Critical Thinking

5. Negotiation

6. Quality Control

7. Service Orientation

8. Judgement and Decision


9. Active Listening

10. Creativity

Source: Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum

Link wearable tech with business goals

Employee data is being collected at all touchpoints – from numbers of candidate applications, retention rates, CRM platforms, employee engagement survey results, and customer feedback. However, data is being collected by different departments that work in silos to decipher insights that are only relevant to them. Additionally, these analytics efforts aren’t aligned to the people or business strategy. The only way to use this data to improve the employee experience in order to promote business goals is for multiple departments to work together.

This issue is made more pressing by the increase of wearable tech for employees

Hitachi, the Japanese engineering and electronics company, developed an ID-type card that employees wear around their necks. Multiple sensors within the card collect a variety of data 50 times per second, including how much time is spent sitting, walking, typing and interacting with colleagues. Using this data, the company has developed an algorithm that measures happiness. Because, ultimately, happiness equates to productivity.

Last year, Three Square Market, a company based in the US, offered to implant microchips in employees. These microchips, using the same technology as contactless cards, would allow people to share business cards, open doors and even login to their computers. The company’s goal? They see chip technology as the next evolution of payment systems and want to stay ahead of the industry.

Gathering data from employee social behaviours not only raises new questions about ethics and sharing of information, but also about their purpose. What goal are you trying to achieve? Are you promoting health and wellbeing? You need to judge what is right for your company and employees.

Instil a culture of lifelong learning

In order to be ready for the future, you need to look at the emerging areas of technology and create a learning framework to evaluate what skills you will need to invest in and strengthen. These will be different for each organisation, but structured learning paths must be created and complemented by support systems in order to develop talent within your own ecosystem. Learning must be an integral part of company culture.

Most organisations have taken a very different approach to learning and development. They are looking outside for technical skills, rather than inwards to develop the talent they already have. In addition to this oversight, soft skills – such as complex problem solving skills and creativity – need particular attention. According to the World Economic Forum they will become the most sought-after skills over the next few years.

Be prepared to invest

According to PwC’s Workforce of the Future report, 74 per cent of employees are ready to learn new skills or completely retrain in order to remain employable in the future. Therefore, the appetite for personal growth is there. It is up to organisations to act on this, to be open to listening, learning and teaching.

Employee engagement will continue to decrease unless employers are willing to invest in their people. What will elevate successful businesses will be their willingness to invest in their workforce and adapt processes and business models to support future needs.

"What will elevate successful businesses will be their willingness to invest in their workforce and adapt processes and business models to support future needs."

Technology and humans should be complements to each other and organisations need to find the courage to adapt and innovate in order not to be left behind. 

Image: Getty Images

Priscilla Kuehnel

Priscilla Kuehnel leads the engagement practice at MSL UK. She is a brand engagement consultant with 11 years of experience advising clients on change management, internal and corporate communications, and stakeholder engagement. Previously roles include positons at Instinctif Partners Vista Limited and Change Management Group.